Washington has an emerging consensus line on Sen. Edward Kennedy as presidential candidate. This new 1982-83 line replaces the late-1979 line, which held that Kennedy would really defeat Jimmy Carter in the spring and probably any Republican in the fall of 1980. The current line holds that he quite possibly could win the 1984 Democratic nomination, but that he would surely lose to any Republican in the fall.

Once again, political Washington has enthusiastically adopted another faulty theory. Nobody hereabouts actually knows if Kennedy will even run in 1984. But if he does, and if he wins the Democratic presidential nomination after a series of contested primaries, Kennedy will not be the same public person he is today or that he will be in January 1984 before the entire process begins. When somebody, even somebody previously well-known, is about to become one of the two principal presidential nominees, American voters stop and accord that somebody a closer look.

The presidential nominating process -- 36 primaries in 14 weeks in 1980 -- legitimizes the candidate who survives it. That's precisely what it did for Ronald Reagan, who, by July 1980, had surpassed Jimmy Carter in the public's judgment in the matters of intelligence and being a person of exceptional qualities. That had clearly not been the case at the outset of the 1980 campaign year, when Reagan's negative ratings -- especially reservations about his age and rigid conservatism -- were higher than those of any other GOP candidate.

Sen. George McGovern, who in January 1972 had been the Democrats' sixth choice -- behind Eugene McCarthy and John Lindsay -- had done well enough by June of that year that a large margin of voters judged him to be a "colorful, interesting personality" with "innovative solutions to problems."

The truth is that American voters, in spite of all the anti-politics rhetoric, hold genuine respect both for the political process and for the judgments of other American voters. Any major party nominee, by virtue of his demonstrated skill and stamina and voter ratification and because he is now one of the two White House finalists, becomes a serious person to whom some attention must be paid.

That second, closer look may, as was the case in 1972, be most unhelpful to the candidate being reexamined. McGovern never got as close to Richard Nixon has he had been in the June polls. Or, as they did with Reagan in 1980, voters may discover some strengths or qualities that they had missed in their first viewing. Frequently voters detect real "growth" in a nominee. It is up to the nominee to impress the voters and to persuade them that he is, in fact, presidential.

If Kennedy does run and if the conventional wisdom is right and he beats the field for the Democratic nomination, then don't bet against him in the general election--at least not until August 1984. American voters give their presidential nominees a fair hearing.